Jeb Bush has a legacy problem. Its name is George. Two presidents named George Bush, to be exact. The problem is that Jeb focuses attention on the wrong relative, his brother, President George W. Why not his father, President George H.W.? Isn’t he the one with the more appealing legacy?
The former Florida governor, once considered the favorite to win the nomination but now stalled in polls after lackluster campaign performances, has declared that he’s his own man.
Fair enough. Yet his family comes up on the campaign trail, of course, and when it does the subject is usually his brother, the 43rd president. That turns the conversation to George W’s ill-fated 2003 Iraq war. Bad memories are fresh. It’s a loser.
By contrast, Jeb’s dad, the 41st president, left office almost a quarter century ago and looks pretty good today. The elder Bush also went to war with Iraq, but succeeded. The alliance he forged worked. Mission accomplished, he got out. He brilliantly managed the end of the Cold War and left a few notable domestic achievements.
That’s not usually what Jeb Bush talks about. He won’t break with his brother and can’t shake loose of his unpopular policies. When asked whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified, he’s struggled to give a clear answer.
Recently he blamed today’s problems in Iraq on President Barack Obama. In an Aug. 11 speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, he hailed the Bush 43 record, particularly the “brilliant and heroic” 2007 troop surge that quelled sectarian violence for a time. In Jeb Bush’s telling, the surge stabilized Iraq until 2009, when Obama pulled out American forces and paved the way for the spread of Islamic State. Never mind that it was Bush 43 who negotiated the American withdrawal.
Subsequently, Jeb Bush proclaimed that “taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal.”
Saddam was a despot who ruled by vicious terror. Taking him out cost about 4,500 American lives and, conservatively, something like $1 trillion. University of Washington researchers, working with Baghdad officials, estimated last year that more than 460,000 Iraqis died in the war. Iran has more leverage in the region as a result of it.
In 2006, William F. Buckley Jr., the godfather of contemporary conservatism, declared of Bush 43: “Mr. Bush is in the hands of a fortune that will be unremitting on the point of Iraq. If he’d invented the Bill of Rights, it wouldn’t get him out of his jam.”
By contrast, when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bush 41 assembled the largest global coalition since World War II, dispatched over half a million troops, and drove the Iraqis out in a quick war that was largely financed by others. He didn’t occupy Iraq, anticipating the costs.
Even on the domestic front, Bush 41 looks more successful. The candidate’s brother enacted huge tax cuts that contributed to spiraling deficits. His main domestic achievement, prescription drug coverage for seniors, was unfunded.
George H.W. Bush’s domestic triumph was the Americans for Disabilities Act, now 25 years old, one of the most significant civil rights achievements since the 1960s.
To be sure, Bush 41 also agreed to tax increases as part of the 1990 budget deal. Supply-side economic conservatives still assail him for it. Even though some economists say the tax hike was a step toward the good times and balanced budgets of the 1990’s, embracing their author carries real risks when it comes to Republican primary voters.
But political strategy can’t explain Jeb Bush’s reluctance to model himself more on his father. Tactically it would make sense for Jeb to move smartly away from his brother. Embracing his dad might help consolidate support from the Republican party’s establishment wing, which he needs to dominate to win the nomination.
So what is the explanation? Maybe it’s family psychology. Maybe it’s old-fashioned fraternal loyalty. Either way, it’s a legacy problem.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.
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